By Ciara Parsons, BA'15
With no shortage of medical innovation and leading-edge technologies, health care services are becoming increasingly sophisticated.
In Canada, universal health care coverage has created greater access to care and equipped Canadians with the services they require to live well.
However, not all attempting to navigate Canada’s health care system have access to the same degree and speed of care. Those struggling with mental illness are often left behind and significantly affected by this gap in treatment.
Kelly Anderson, PhD, Assistant Professor, Departments of Epidemiology & Biostatistics and Psychiatry, says the disparities in care exhibited between psychiatric care and other medical conditions is shocking.
In her most recent paper, Anderson discovered that 40 per cent of people diagnosed with their first-ever psychotic disorder do not receive any physician-based follow-up care in the 30 days following their formal diagnosis.
“If I were to tell you that 40 per cent of the kids who are diagnosed with cancer or diabetes don’t see a doctor in 30 days, there would be outrage," Anderson said. "People would be shocked. They would be out in Queen’s Park protesting that we need changes to the system, and yet this is happening on a regular basis for those diagnosed with a mental illness."
Unfortunately stigma, still poses as a major impediment to mental health treatment. With few people willing to speak up about their own mental health or the trouble they experience both accessing and receiving care, the mental health system remains underequipped to handle the needs of patients.
“It’s the fear of being labeled with having a mental disorder and the perception that treatment facilities are an asylum—very antiquated notions of what mental health treatment is and what it involves,” said Anderson.
As someone who speaks so passionately about her research, academic interests and the cohort of graduate students she helps to supervise, it is somewhat surprising to learn that becoming a researcher and working in academia as a professor wasn’t always something Anderson envisioned for herself.
“Medicine had always been my 'Plan A' for as long as I can remember,” said Anderson. “I had wanted, when thinking of pursuing a career in medicine, to be a psychiatrist.”
However, sometimes our coveted ‘Plan A’s change as we gain new insights and life experience. And after completing a stint as a research assistant in an emergency psychiatry department, Anderson came to realize that perhaps psychiatry was not for her.
“Although I had an intellectual curiosity and fascination about psychiatry and mental disorders, I don’t think that I necessarily had the skillset to be a psychiatrist,” said Anderson.
Looking for other opportunities within the field of medicine to apply herself to, Anderson set her sights on population health. Because of its potential for discovery, she found that she was much happier working with large population datasets and using her skills to identify trends in data.
“I liked the idea that I was generating knowledge and having an impact on the health of entire populations,” said Anderson. “Being an investigator and looking for these associations between risk factors at a population level really intrigued me.”
Prior to beginning her research in mental health, Anderson says she didn’t have much experience with the mental health system.
“Once I began to dive into the area of mental health and became more familiar with the mental health system and how it works, I was shocked to find out just how huge the treatment gap is between the help that people need and the help that they actually receive,” said Anderson.
Much of her current work revolves around evaluating access to mental health services and identifying how factors such as gender, socioeconomics and ethnic background dictate whether or how services for mental disorders are sought.
Adolescent mental disorders is an area in particular that Anderson says she is intrigued by.
“The reason I’m drawn to this area is because of the high burden of mental disorders among youth, as well as the very early onset of most mental conditions,” said Anderson. “It’s been estimated almost 75 per cent of all mental disorders have their onset before the age of 25.”
Leading with her intellectual curiosity, Anderson says through her research she aims to find better ways to deliver mental health services to young people as a way of improving their overall well-being and life trajectories.
“It’s such a distressing time for young people and their family members when someone first starts to demonstrate signs of a mental disorder, and that time is challenging enough as it is,” said Anderson.
“To try and navigate our extremely complex and confusing mental health system just adds another layer of stress and frustration and despair to families who are trying to seek help for their loved ones. If the work that I do can highlight problems in the system and work on solutions to make it easier for people to get the help they need, then I would consider it a success.”